Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson! The classic coming-of-age yarn The Graduate is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. To mark this very special occasion we spoke with the film’s producer, Lawrence Turman.
Having reached something of a landmark age himself last year in turning 90, Mr. Turman has had a long and illustrious career in Hollywood, with an array of iconic films under his belt as producer, including The Thing, American History X and Short Circuit. Taking time out from his schedule (still working, he teaches film classes at the University of Southern California) Mr. Turman chatted with us about the enduring legacy of the film.
Lawrence Truman: I chuckle because if I knew, I’d have constantly repeated it.
How did the project materialise?
A producer’s job is to produce, therefore, I and others in my profession are always looking for a story or a character that is of interest. I believe in working viscerally. I was constantly reading material and stories. I read the New York Times daily and in one edition I chanced upon a book review for an upcoming novel called The Graduate. It sounded like I might like it so I bought the book and read it. Well, I didn’t like it, I loved it.
After reading it, I optioned the material. I put up my own money, which I’m smiling at even now, because putting up my own money to control the book made me realise how much I loved it. Producing in show business is the business of other people’s money. The studio should put up an option. It was the only time in my career of forty years and forty movies that I used my own funds. Usually, I would always tried to sell the idea to a studio without actually owning it. In the case of The Graduate, no one else wanted it, but I felt I had to have control of it. I put up a thousand dollars which in those days got me right by the throat. I was a lot of money for me.
Were you quite nervous about doing that or was your confidence in the material enough to assuage any fears?
I was confident that I liked it. I’ve had other books and scripts that I’ve tried to make into movies, and in some cases have succeeded in doing that, but by being confident, all it means is that I liked it and I thought it would make a good film. Sometimes I’ve been right, but many times I’ve been wrong. The Graduate proved to be right. There seemed to be world-wide appreciation for that story and the character of Benjamin Braddock.
I heard that it was initially difficult to get Dustin Hoffman on board. You had to really fight for him. Was that the case?
It was no trouble getting him cast in the role. There was enormous trouble finding the actor who Mike Nichols and I thought would be the perfect person for the role. We probably saw at least a hundred young men for the part. We ended up doing film tests on six of them, and Dustin was included amongst those. We chose him and that was a case of us being lucky and smart because we chose the right person.
The audience at the time thought the film was quite risqué. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, but was there any worry that it might alienate rather than entice?
For 1967 it was racy but that wasn’t the fundamental dramatic basis of the film. I guess it was attention-getting and provocative. I personally think the success of a film isn’t based on that. Further, and here’s an interesting sidelight – the film was released at the end of 1967, and it proved to be so successful, the financing company re-released it five years later. When it was re-released it didn’t even get an R rating, it received a PG. It’s amazing how quickly social and sexual mores changed in the American public during that five year span.
Were you ever pressured into making similar types of coming-of-age films following The Graduate’s huge success?
Every year there’s something similar and bigger which capitalises on the zeitgeist. I’m now a professor and chair of the film programme at the USC and what I personally preach to the students is to follow your heart – don’t chase the box office, don’t chase the public. That’s my modus operandi. I quote Joseph Campbell’s ‘follow your bliss’. With the class I teach, I’m always talking about following the things you really care about and hopefully they’ll be other people on the planet who agree with you. The Graduate is the perfect example of that.
At the end of filming The Graduate, Life magazine had a reporter who came to interview myself and Mike Nichols. He asked me for my opinion of the lead character. Being a bit of a wiseguy, I said he was me, because I really identified with him. The reporter looked up at me and said Nichols had given him the same answer. It really shows how congruent Mike and I were about the film. It was very personal to me and that’s how I like to work.
Out of your long list of producing credits, is The Graduate the one you’re still the most proud?
I produced a film immediately after The Graduate that’s I’m equally proud of [1968’s Anthony Perkins-headlining Pretty Poison] and it was a financial failure even though it won the New York Film Critics’ award for the best screenplay of the year. It was subject where the main character was as outside the mainstream as much as Benjamin Braddock, but the subject matter was very dark. It dealt with matricide. The film failed commercially but I was as emotionally involved with it as I was with The Graduate, although it didn’t have a director with the calibre of Mike Nichols.
However, it’s hard to have a larger success than The Graduate. Here you are interviewing me in another country about a film I produced fifty years ago. That’s once in a lifetime. I’m very fortunate.
The Graduate will be released on Special Edition DVD, Blu-Ray and EST on August 14th